Turkish submarines and balances in the Eastern Mediterranean

(To Renato Scarfi)

Last May 23, with a grand ceremony attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the guest of honor, a milestone was emphatically celebrated towards the conclusion of the work on the second independent air-powered submarine (air-independent propulsion - AIP) “Reis” class (Type-214TR), the future TCG Hizir Reis, which should enter service in 2023. During the same ceremony, which took place at the Turkish shipyards of Gölcük, the first welding of the sixth submarine of the same class (TGC Selman Reis), whose entry into service is scheduled for 2027.

The availability of submarines of this type, which have the ability to operate without having access to outside air and, therefore, without emerging or employing one snorkel, could significantly change the balance of power in an area, such as that of the Levant Sea, in which - among others - relevant international "attention" (Italy included) related to energy supply and the exploitation of its immense hydrocarbon fields. (read article "The aggressive Turkish maritime policy destabilizes the Mediterranean")

The "Reis" class boats

The AIP submarines are underwater units of just over 68 m in length and about 6 m in diameter, with a displacement of approximately 1.850 t and a crew of 40 people. These boats are capable of long occult voyages, both near the coast and in deep water. Being significantly less noisy than previous models and, therefore, relatively "invisible" to the opponent's underwater detection and localization devices, they represent an added value or a greater danger (depending on their use) in terms of underwater combat and covert operations .

As Erdoğan himself pointed out in his speech in Gölcük, these boats can operate for up to twelve weeks without supplies and dive to depths of over 300m. They are also capable of hitting underwater, surface and land targetsi.

It is therefore a significant improvement of the Turkish Navy, which has started the construction of these boats under German license and thanks to the collaboration between the Turkish shipyards of Gölcük and Sistemi Marini of the German thyssenkrupp. The first in the series, the Piri Reis, was launched in 2019, which should be followed by one boat per year from 2023 to 2027, for a total of six submarines.

We are talking about a collaboration strongly desired by Angela Merkel, who has nevertheless been strongly criticized in Germany, precisely because of the tensions produced, especially in the last five years, by the assertive and aggressive Turkish attitude in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Energy and geopolitical aspects

Since before the start of the war in Ukraine, which sees Russia busy gaining ground in order to secure that country's resources, and expand its control of the Black Sea, Turkey has been playing a difficult geopolitical role, in constant balance. on a razor's edge, demonstrating a remarkable ability in tactical hoop-shooting.

As a country bordering the Black Sea, Ankara was starkly opposed to Moscow even before February 24, being openly very close to Kiev both on a military and diplomatic level (its are the drones that have caused so many losses to Russian troops) while at the same time, it was doing business in the military sector. (read article "The two faces of the Turkish attitude")

Even as a Western ally, Turkey plays ambiguously. While it is intent on stemming Moscow's expansionism in the Black Sea, the Caucasus, Syria and Libya (especially in terms of energy supply), Ankara opposes the inclusion of Sweden and Finland in the Atlantic Alliance. An attitude that many analysts read as instrumental in persuading the US to re-insert it into the F-35 program. Indeed, without these aircraft, the Turkish sea projection capacity would be significantly reduced. (read article "Do relations between Russia and Turkey threaten NATO?") The assessment of some analysts is that the war in Ukraine has restored Turkey's strategic importance to Washington and that Ankara intends to collect as soon as possible its dividend.

Finally, precisely as a result of these ambiguous and articulated relations with the various actors, Erdoğan is trying to establish himself as a mediator in the Ukrainian conflict, in order to allow the ceasefire and the start of a serious and constructive diplomatic confrontation capable of balance the different needs. A success in this sense would lead to Ankara, and above all to Erdoğan, a huge return of image on the international stage, allowing him to accentuate his strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean, mainly aimed at seizing the enormous reserves of natural gas and oil found in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and, above all, in the Greek one south of Crete and in the Libyan one.

In this perspective, another objective of the most recent Turkish policy is to wreck all the large trans-Mediterranean energy projects that see it excluded and that could completely solve, for at least half a century, the EU's supply problems..

Such is, for example, the named pipeline project East-Med, which crosses the Eastern Mediterranean from Cyprus to Greece and then to Italy and Europe. A project that, according to authoritative sources, the European Commission should promote with flying colors by 2022, after the attempts to sink in recent years, and which should also be suitable for the transport of green hydrogen, as in the intentions of the consortium. “Poseidon” and as foreseen by the strategy Repower Europe. The European Commission, which has already financed the project with 70 million euros, would therefore have no intention of submitting to the threatening Turkish posture and would seem willing, together with Cyprus, Greece and Italy (according to the latest political signals from the Government and Parliament) to to achieve East-Med.

But the Turkish destabilization does not only concern the energy aspects. The reasons for the friction with the coastal countries are many, and quite serious. Without addressing the now well-known Cypriot question, it is enough to recall the fierce geopolitical contrast with Greece which, in the last five years, has given rise to a real internal challenge within NATO to the sound of provocations, represented by numerous violations of Greek airspace. by Turkish fighters and by air and naval exercises in the Athens EEZ, also close to the Greek territorial waters. It is also news these days that the Turkish research ship Cesme it plans to conduct hydrographic surveys near the Greek islands Lesbos, Skyros and Agios Efstratios, while Athens claims that Ankara does not have the authority to issue navigation warnings in the area.

With such an incandescent situation, the acquisition of the new "Reis" class boats could, as mentioned, unbalance the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean, allowing Turkey to have new tools to use for its aggressive and destabilizing maritime policy, hindering the legitimate interests of the countries interested in that area, particularly in terms of energy, but not only.

This could, in fact, have a negative impact on the overall geopolitical situation of the Eastern Mediterranean and on our national interests, although Ankara is formally our ally in NATO, but in fact our fierce ally. competitors in that area of ​​the world.

Its maritime posture and its neo-Ottoman politics have therefore created increasing difficulties in international relations in the Levant Sea and have made dialogue very difficult to reconcile the different national needs, starting from the need for certainty of international maritime law to navigation safety needs, to get to energy issues, increasingly pressing in order to differentiate supplies in this troubled historical period.


The naval strengthening of Turkey is one of the "gifts" made by Merkel, from which the German government itself is now distancing itself, whose leadership shortsighted and narcotic has contributed not a little to the destabilization of an area of ​​extreme geopolitical importance. In fact, he is also the director of the terrible European agreement on migrants, reached with Erdoğan. Not even a year after her political death, what we were saying in a few yesterday, but which today is starting to be clearer to everyone, is the permanent damage that Angela Merkel has caused to NATO and to the security of the areaii.

That said, the threat to our interests in the Mediterranean can be expected to grow in the coming years, as Turkey will have both the aforementioned boats and 7 new “TF 2000” destroyers with cruise missile capabilities. If F-35 aircraft were added to this, supplied by an American administration "distracted" by Indo-Pacific issues and eager to please its ally on the Bosphorus, Ankara would be able to extend its destabilizing maritime influence far beyond Cyprus. .

It is also likely that, by continuing to play at two opposing tables at the same time, Ankara may return, once the conflict in Ukraine is over, to forge new diplomatic and commercial relations with Moscow, worsening its image in Western eyes, and to allow the Russian Navy to return to represent an additional threat in the basin, with its Frigates which, in the short term, could be equipped with hypersonic “Zircon” missiles, interceptible only with direct energy weapons.

The Eastern Mediterranean is an area of ​​great importance and sensitivity, intimately linked to the protection of our national interests, both economic and political. To stem the overflowing Turkish destabilization e aEnsuring the stability of the geopolitical framework in the area is, therefore, a fundamental premise to allow the continuity of the commercial flow by sea, which means well-being and prosperity of our country. The interruption or slowdown, for whatever reason, of global supply chains, with delays in supplies from the East have in fact highlighted the intimate connection between economy, sea and the role of the navies (the case of Ever given is emblematic - read article "The economic and geopolitical importance of the Suez Canal")

At stake are not only national well-being and the continuity of energy and raw materials supply, but also the security of export flows of processed products, vital for our economy, and our international image and credibility, on which we are bases the possibility of consolidating the old and conquering the new markets.

The geopolitical framework of reference is in constant ferment and is characterized by the destabilizing action of old and new players who do not hesitate to "go hard", to use a football term, on all possible competitors, whether they are partners or long-standing allies than new international entities. A situation that threatens the entire Eastern Mediterranean area and our national interests and, ultimately, the possibility of maintaining our well-being. A situation that calls Italy to take on a leading role in the whole area, alone or jointly with the allies with whom we share this need.

In particular, it would be desirable to have a strong awareness of our accentuated dependence on the sea both for trade and energy supply, but also for our IT connections (guaranteed by the highways represented by the thousands of kilometers of submarine cables) and, therefore, a more active role of our diplomacy and the Navy and a greater proactive dynamism on the part of our country in the various international fora would be important, in order to relaunch our objective geopolitical function and make sure that others do not try to exercise it on our behalf.

In this context, as the experience with Russia shows, diplomatic protests alone and the imposition of symbolic or in any case mild sanctions will not solve the problem as, by doing so, Turkey could continue to destabilize the whole area and arbitrarily take over a large part of the gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, trampling the rules of international law. Erdoğan, in this, is not very different from Putin and not trying to adequately contain his ambitions could simply feed his appetites.

As a regional medium power with global interests, we cannot ignore the maritime aspects related to our security and our economy.

Therefore, not only a modern, credible and effective Navy, with adequate projection capabilities, efficient means, strategic vision and the ability to protect our national interests on the sea, including the anti-submarine fight, but also a constant availability and viability of outlets on the sea. sea, with logistics and shipbuilding commensurate with the level of ambition - and needs - of the country, with the utmost attention to the present but with an eye to the future.

At the base of everything there must be the awareness of the geopolitical importance of the Mediterranean basin for European and world economies and Italy, due to its history, geographical location and needs, has its own role to play. You can't just be a spectator.

i Tayfun Orzberk, Turkey Launches Second Reis-Class Type 214 AIP Submarine, NavalNews, May 24, 2022

iiEastern Mediterranean between geopolitics and energy, Strategic Notebooks n. 2 of the Center for Maritime and Geopolitics Studies (CESMAR), Rome, 2022


Photo: presidency of the republic of Turkey / Twitter / ministry of defense